I finally got around to listening to the recording of Samuel L. Jackson reading Go The Fuck To Sleep:
When I first heard a clip from the recording on the radio, I reacted with simultaneous amusement and slight discomfort. The amusement was, of course, because the recording is hilarious. Jackson is a versatile voice talent, and so can effectively project a soothing tone for lines such as "The tiger reclines in the simmering jungle. The sparrow has silenced her cheep." and then switch to a convincing blend of pissed off and a little desperate daddy for the next lines, "Fuck your stuffed bear, I'm not getting you shit. Close yours eyes. Cut the crap. Sleep."
The slight discomfort comes from seeing yet another portrayal of an angry black man in mainstream media. I know, I know, I sound all "politically correct" even bringing it up, but anyone who questions the excess amount of images on magazine covers, album covers, newspapers, movies and television, billboards, etc. really isn't paying attention. Black men are disproportionately portrayed as violent criminals, womanizers, and bad fathers. So it is a little weird to have a book written by a white man and illustrated with images of a white child being read by an obviously black man. It is almost as if because people expect a black man to be pissed off, we're okay with one cursing out a child, and therefore we feel okay laughing about it. I keep imagining the text being read in other voices: an effeminate white guy, a gruff, slow, Southern drawl, a syrupy-sweet woman's, or maybe instead a sharp, nasally woman's voice. Would any of these be as funny to a general audience as Jackson's deep and sometimes reassuring, sometimes intimidating, and undeniably African American voice? I really don't know, I just wonder.
Similarly, novelist Amy Sohn questions whether a woman could have written Go The Fuck To Sleep and had it be just as successful. Just as people have become accustomed to the image of the angry black man, fathers are not expected to be as patient, attentive, and generous to their children as mothers. And just as I would argue that perhaps a general audience is more comfortable with a black man reading this book, Sohn argues that a general audience is more comfortable with man having written it.
Again, I don't know the answers to these questions. I suspect I'm in a tiny minority of people who tries to cultivate a personal awareness of how different groups of people are presented in media and how that might influence my own prejudices. I'm certainly not arguing that there is any conspiracy out there to get people to think of black men as angry. Stereotypes are usually perpetuated in a much more fluid and unconscious manner. I also don't want to develop an oversensitivity to negative stereotypes, to the point where I can't enjoy such a talented readings as this. Ironically, when I first heard of the book Go To Fuck To Sleep, in my mind I imagined a white, woman author, because I felt I could relate to the concept so well. The text of the story bobs back and forth between gentle and poetic coaxing and I'm-at-the-end-of-my-rope frustration. Boy is that familiar.
It isn't just that young children are often difficult to get to sleep. It is also that at the end of the day, working parents (and most parents work full time these days) are just plain exhausted. And no matter how much we love our little munchkins, everyone eventually runs out of patience. When I read Go The Fuck To Sleep or listen to the recording, I see myself reading The Runaway Bunny or Pajama Time! for the millionth time in a soft, yet expressive tone of voice, while deep in my mind I'm also screaming, "For the love of all that is good and decent in the world, just fucking nod off already so I can clean the kitchen!" In his reading, Jackson's tone conveys not only anger and frustration, but love. After all, if we didn't love them, we'd forgo the 38+ minute bedtime stories altogether and just lock them in their rooms screaming.